For over thirty years now I have worked with the poor and indigent. Like many other Human Services workers, I know that the true rewards of the work that I do cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Before I finished my education, I was a ballet dancer, an off Broadway actress and sometimes print ad model, a “starving artist”. Once I had completed my education I became a “starving humanist”. Over the years since I have come to understand life on levels that I would not have, had I not chosen my field. Sometimes the level of my understanding makes me very unhappy indeed.
When I first began working in Behavioral Health, I was a very fortunate young lady. My parents were still living and in relatively good health as were my maternal grandparents. I had a plethora of friends and a usual significant other. I never worried about not having a bountiful Thanksgiving. Yes my own day to day circumstances were Spartan but my life was rich and there was always a welcome mat and turkey drumstick waiting for Cathy on Thanksgiving Day.
Some of my best memories were of arriving home in tiny Windsor, Connecticut, where I took the Amtrak from NYC on several holidays. There were never any available seats on the trip home and I would straddle my overnight bag while standing and hanging on to an overhead for the three hour ride. I never minded very much. I had my nose deep in a paper back novel and enjoyed the crowded trains. I liked to observe the diversity of travelers. There were families and students, young professionals like me, as well as a variety of others, whose destinations I could only imagine.
After Hartford station, I would leave for home on a small and ancient two car train for the very next stop. The conductor would lay down a milk crate at Windsor Station and hold my hand while I stepped off. From there, after a short walk, I would call my family from a pay phone in the town center and head home to a cozy holiday. Some years, especially when it was snowing, I would delay my call and sit on the bench in front of the town green and watch the snow fall. In the peace and quiet of a New England evening I would give thanks for my busy and exciting NYC life as well as the safety and serenity of the small town where I grew up.
Shortly after graduation from graduate school, I found work. My grandmother helped me to buy a car, the infamous Chevy Chevette that tooled me back and forth to my day job as a therapist, my evening job as a waitress, my tiny City Island bungalow and the very handsome and successful architect boyfriend’s apartment in midtown. Life was very good. Up to my ears in college loans, car loans, and psychoanalysis training, I moved quite easily and gracefully through a demanding and exhausting life.
Around this time I was working in a Day Treatment Program in suburban NYC and as was the custom, on the day before Thanksgiving, staff and clients were producing what my then clinical supervisor liked to call “Feed Bag”. Cognizant of the fact that the better portion of our clients were isolated and alone on the holidays we routinely prepared a large turkey lunch on the day before Thanksgiving. That day I arrived at work early to begin roasting off more than 40 lbs of turkey. I jumped into cook mode and as clients began to arrive around seven o’clock, I began barking orders to peel potatoes or set the table. I was 25 years old and not a very experienced therapist.
By ten o’clock the place was humming. It appeared as if we were right on schedule and I began to think about an early day off when I could escape into my little car and head back to my childhood home. I was working at the kitchen stove with two of my clients when I heard a young man call my name. I was gingerly placing pumpkin pies in a hot oven when he called my name again. “Okay! Gimme a minute here” I shouted back. As I rose from the oven, I noticed deadly silence in the room. I turned to face the client who had summoned me and was looking down the barrel of a handgun that was squarely pointed at my head.
In a move my Administrator would later tell police was 95 percent sheer stupidity and five percent dim luck, I calmly took the gun away from the client and barked at him, “I am just too busy for this nonsense today”! It was not until I was actually two hand holding the firearm and hearing the sobs and cries of the others around me that I fully realized the magnitude of what had happened. My army of loyal client cooks raised their potato peelers and plastic paring knives high as if to charge the young man while I marched out of the kitchen and into the staff lounge. The very psychotic man flew out the back door. Safely ensconced in the lounge, I dropped the gun into a waste basket, plopped myself on the couch and began smoking the first of numerous low tar cigarettes while my colleagues stared at me slack jawed.
From that Thanksgiving forward, for a few years I decided to to celebrate my Thanksgiving in a new way. I culled together vacation time and jetted off to European capitals for each “Turkey Day” on my own. My mother had sold my childhood home, I did not like the celebration so very much anymore, and I found cheap flight and hotel packages I could not otherwise afford on my combined waitress and human services salaries. My various boyfriends, over those years, became used to my need to” get outta town” that holiday weekend by myself. I roamed museums and galleries, stood on lines for discount theater and symphony tickets while I dined at out of the way cafes and pubs. I spent my time immersed in activities no one I knew valued so much but that felt so forbidden and pleasure able to me. I wept in the Water Lilies room of the British National Museum, howled at Tom Conti, playing in the West End. I navigated miles in the Louvre and always found ways to see the Ballet or Symphony in any city I stayed. Most I knew found my delights ever so boring, and I was quite happy indulging on my own. I felt so lucky indeed.
Eventually I married, and then divorced. My parents died. My nuclear family fissioned. Soon I was left alone again to navigate Thanksgiving as a solo act. I continued to work in Human Services, and while I no longer participate in “Feed Bags”, I am acutely aware of the climate of the country in which I live as I listen to my clients, all of whom live marginally in dire economic times. For the past five years I have lived and worked in western Massachusetts not very far from my childhood home. For the past two years I have been a Senior Clinician in a mental health clinic, in a poverty ridden city where even the best of days are hugely challenging for those who live here.
Since the day before Thanksgiving when someone held a gun to my head to help me to understand the deep disappointment that holidays can sometimes bring, I have been sensitive to those who have not lived with the same fortune and opportunity that have blessed me throughout my life.
Last year was the first year in which I noted such severe and unmitigated poverty that virtually none of my over one hundred clients were able to celebrate Thanksgiving. Yes I had dutifully directed them to food pantries and charity dinners. I “checked in” with each and every one to tell me their “Thanksgiving Plan”. All of them had told me just what they expected I might wish to hear. Yet, none of them celebrated Thanksgiving. I was universally given the explanation that Thanksgiving would pass uncelebrated so that there might be a Christmas. Naturally I was devastated. I heard stories about Cornflakes for lunch, Chef Boyardee ravioli dinners and Moms who played endless hours of Chutes and Ladders with their children to distract them from the festive annual parade on television. I heard about parents who did not eat that day but served up Chicken wings to their children and then filled up on left over mashed potatoes their kids left behind. I did not hear the story once or ten times or even twenty times. I heard the story more than one hundred times.
Now the world has changed a great deal since I was a young and idealistic therapist. Just as my small world has changed and evolved so too has the planet around me. I am no longer the lithe and energetic dance therapist who worked two jobs to pay off her education loans. My small but close family is gone and there is no longer a safe little town that I can call home and find comfort. I have evolved from a world traveler and later on NYC socialite to an ordinary middle aged lady who buys cheap Impressionist prints from Savers to hang on her office walls and will probably never again spend a leisurely weekend at the Prado Museum.
Just like everyone else I know, I have struggled with health issues, endured searing heartbreak and severe financial losses in our struggling economy of the past few years. My life remains rich with good friends, clients who insist on hugs from me when I least expect it, and warmth and comfort in small ways that help me to understand life in a positive and thankful way. On Thanksgiving Day, I will work part time as a counselor but will also relax in my small apartment clad in my holey Yoga pants and college sweat shirt. I might or might not have a turkey sandwich but I will sip egg nog and share a piece of “Punky Pie” with my little dog. I will not mind the images of a grand parade or even the annual showing of the Capra classic that was created to remind us all of how valuable each moment of each precious life we breathe.
I will not cry or miss the simple beauty of my hometown Thanksgivings, my world trips or my dining days in five star NYC restaurants while married to a successful restaurateur. I will not be disappointed by the poverty and need that surrounds me and that I have also been forced to face after years of hard work. I am an extremely wealthy woman by dint of her experiences and her willingness to remain open and aware. It will hurt me next week when I hear stories of how my clients Thanksgivings were so meager and spartan, but I will enjoy their smiles and tears as they tell me anecdotes about their children and parents and loved ones. No doubt I will be brought wonderfully colored pictures of purple turkeys and green suited pilgrims. I will hear about the heat being turned off and parents finding offspring cuddled close in bed. I will laugh at turkey tales and soup kitchen foibles. I will pray for those incarcerated or hospitalized and their families as well.
When its all over I will come back to where I live and stay centered as a humanist and as flawed woman with ” a bone to pick” with my creator, my government and my faith.
Please be thankful for all you have this year, but be oh so generous with that substantial and wealthy bank account of untold riches you have earned over your lifetime. Give it all away this Thanksgiving and then watch it come back to you over and over again. We are all, exactly where we need to be, for exactly the right and most grace giving of reasons.